The Dark Side of Social Capital

Social capital has a lot to offer our youth. However, it’s not perfect. And, as with most things, there’s always a dark side. There are two types of social capital – bridging and bonding. Bonding, the close cousin to bridging social capital has a dark past. It encapsulates the deep bonds of familiarity, fellowship and connections we develop with family members, close friends and similar individuals. In some circles, it is referred to as the old boys’ network and in other circles, it’s called “my set.” Whether it is in the corporate boardroom or on the streets, bonding social capital offers youth several benefits, such as social support, thick trust, solidarity and loyalty. It helps youth develop a strong sense of self and identity within a group. Small but powerful dyads of “what I know and who I know you, you know too” develop and often determines the people youth will know in the future. And although old friends are lost, they are often replaced by new ones from the same circle. But when pushed to extremes, bonding social capital can cause sequestration from the outside world and firmly latch youth onto that which is familiar and trusted. One of the effects of bonding social capital is disconnection. It naturally encourages young adults to stick to what they know and who they know. It reinforces isolation and disenfranchisement, rejection from other groups, dropping out, gang activity, lack of exposure to diversity, mistrust of other groups, exclusion of outsiders, and widening gaps between groups along lines of race, class and religion. Unfortunately, this is not only a youth problem; it’s an American problem. According to researchers at the Public Religion Research Institute, three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. The United States is still a highly segregated society and youth are good at modeling what they see. In the labor market, the bonding power of social capital limits workers’ access to information about opportunities developing in outside industries. For disconnected youth, the results are also disastrous. With little knowledge or support on how to open the door to the hidden job market, they are forced to sit on the outside and look in. And looking in they are. According to the latest research, about 4.6 million youth are disconnected from work and school and millions more are struggling to just hold on. The impact of Covid-19 has only made this situation worse. In their passage from youth to adulthood, millions of young people are cut from access to the people, places and opportunities that could help them develop the knowledge, skills, and credentials required to live gainful and productive lives. In a world of opportunity where employers are desperately seeking ready to work youth and most workforce programs face serious recruitment challenges, bonding social capital is often the culprit. For many disconnected youth, venturing out and connecting with others outside of their immediateircle is sacrilegious or something that no one prepared them to do. The same is true for many of those who work with them too. The Solution - Social Capital Literacy Bonding social capital generally tends to be easier to develop than its cousin – bridging social capital. Bridging social capital involves connecting to others across social lines and neighborhoods. It represents the expansive side of social capital, offering weak-tie connections, personal growth in both tolerance and openness, and access to diversity and new opportunities through connecting with a myriad people. It means getting close to those not on your block and reaching out to others who may not be where you’re from. What many educators and youth service workers don’t understand is that the best way to teach young people about the importance of social capital is to model it. Youth service workers must develop a high degree of social capital in order to act as the bridge that enables young people to hop large distances in social spaces to access opportunities that too often have been regulated to only a well-connected few. In order to do so, policymakers and funders must make social capital literacy a key element of workforce programming and educational design. To choose otherwise will limit millions of young people to only what they see.

Edward DeJesus is the founder of Social Capital Builders. Learn more at

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